Upon meeting Klara van Wyk you notice the pink tint in her hair and a glint of wonderment in her blue-green eyes, but there’s nothing outwardly to make you assume she’s chosen clowning as a profession. “Oh my word, the looks I get when I tell people what I do. It’s like clowning is such a scary and weird thing. It’s crazy. Everyone just thinks about big red noses and shoes and asks what I’m doing with my life, how I make money and if I work at children’s parties,” she says. The funny thing is that despite the laughter, she’s dead serious, and if you don’t believe her, you can peruse her Linkedin profile and see she’s studying towards a PhD.
When it comes to performance, she’s amassed plenty of experience with an undergrad at Witwatersrand, a masters at the University of Cape Town, and is now in the throes of student life at Stellenbosch. The focus of her PhD is mastering a new form of clowning that’s less about buffoonery and tricks and more about locating the vulnerability within oneself to better connect with the audience. Her creative praxis is inspired by the famous French theatre practitioner and clown Philippe Gaulier. He taps into the vulnerability of clowning to tell narrative tales instead of relying on the tricks and superficial gimmicks that typically come to mind when you think of traditional clowns cavorting in a circus ring.
Can clowning be political, we ask, to which she responds, “I think all art is political. If you make art, the fun and anarchy has to be balanced with a real understanding of what you’re trying to say. I work with cultural issues and issues about fitting in – who we are and the clown not being able to fit in anywhere. I hope for that to come out. If you’re watching a show of mine at first glance I don’t think you’d say it’s overtly political”.
Her one-woman show You Suck (and other inescapable truths), for which she received a Fleur du Cap nomination for Best Actress, explores the complexity of growing up through the eyes of a sarcastic teenager, Pretina. Last year, when she was contemplating what to do with her life and whether she should prolong her studies, she stumbled upon a newspaper article that provided the genesis for the work. “I read a newspaper article about a suicide and it was really shocking. There was picture of a girl who looked exactly like me when I was 13. I even have a photo of myself in my room holding up a fish, just like she was in this picture. And she even had the same name, Klara, with a ‘K’. I read the story and I felt such pain. I wish I could have told her that it’s going to be fine,” she explains.
Without expectations, she worked together with Frankie Nassimbeni and performed the show at Alexander Bar in Cape Town and POPArt in Joburg. She didn’t think people would laugh that much and recalls how during the last show in Joburg, a man in wheelchair sitting in the front row was crying with laughter. This moment served as a reminder that theatre is an amazing medium to work in. Being a performer allows your story to be pretext, and gives the audience permission to make it their own as they fill in the details with their personal experiences.
Working in a medium that’s almost as old as civilisation itself, in a world with a short attention span that’s far more familiar to getting entertainment from a flat screen devoid of real human presence, is an obstacle. She advises that if you’re going to spend time making theatre then you need to produce something that’s worth the effort of getting out of bed for and sacrificing the convenience of a quick YouTube chuckle. For this new-wave comedian, theatre must be about immediacy and conversation. It has to grab you, give you the sense of being alive, the feeling that we’re all in this room together and we’re saying something. There has to be a dialogue, otherwise it dies, to which she adds as an afterthought, “But actually, it never dies”.
It is however challenging for young performers to keep the medium alive. It’s not the lack of will but the insecurity over where to start, what do to and how to make it profitable that keeps creatives at bay. That, and waiting for validation. “I think social media is a great way to share what you’re doing and it helps a lot, but it can also be damaging. We shouldn’t wait for validation, sometimes it doesn’t come immediately. For me, I just love making and creating and I don’t worry about that. I think young people struggle so much to be alone and without their phones. They need that reassurance and when it doesn’t come, it sucks. That’s the problem,” she says between sipping juice and mulling over millennials.
Of the youth, she thinks we’re a brave lot, and believes people want to work on things and that they have the drive to make a difference. Young South Africans know that everything is still far away from the ideal and that’s what makes it scary, whereas the older generation grew up with stability and now they struggle to understand things like technology. A case in point was her grandmother, who was curious to know why ‘the youth’ watch the same videos on online over and over again. What’s so funny about a cat anyway?
As bizarre as that may sound to those forever checking for Facebook likes and communicating with emojis and GIFS, she makes a valid observation about the pros and cons of social media. Facebook is a great publicity tool for theatre artists to spread news about their work and invite audiences to their plays. On a broader socio-political level, “it has allowed us to share valuable information faster and reach more people. Imagine what the world would be like if we were still writing letters in huddled groups with nobody to challenge our collective way of thinking,” she wonders.
The downside is that no matter the city, being online breeds fierce competition and makes us obsess about collecting data. “I mean, why do we need to track how many steps we’ve walked in day? Why do we even care? This collecting of random data is just weird.” When chatting about her experiences of living and performing in Joburg and Cape Town, she’s observed that in Jozi it’s about doing things, and in Cape Town it’s about being seen. Both are worthy of attention but it’s important to find a balance.
The same can be said for clowning. As a passionate performer Klara feels responsible to make work that entertains but still remains relevant for our time. “It’s tricky when historically speaking you come from a position of privilege and you’re aware of your standing. That’s why it’s even more necessary to create work about these issues.”
Photographs of Klara by Gabriella Achadinha.
Styling by Lieze van Tonder
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